Same-sex marriage debate

The referendum is about civil marriage. It won’t affect sacramental marriage. As Christians, therefore, should we not mind our own business?
The Irish Catholic has asked an interdisciplinary team, which includes Prof. Eamonn Conway and Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove, theologians at Mary Immaculate College University of Limerick, and Mr Patrick Treacy SC of Integritas, to consider and respond to the difficult questions we all face when deciding how to vote in the referendum.

In our contributions to the discussion on same-sex  marriage we have put forward a number of reasons in favour of retaining the definition of marriage as a union possible only between a man and a woman.

We have emphasised the uniqueness of this union: in their marital union, including in their sexual union, male and female express and embody in a unique way the wholeness of human nature. The relationship of a man and a woman is distinct because it is the only kind of union which is open to new life.

We have shown that same-sex marriage is not a human right, and that this view prevails internationally.

We have made clear that retaining this traditional understanding of marriage is not discriminatory. It does not constitute discrimination to distinguish between relationships that are not the same. As someone has put it, “we need equity that respects difference, not equality that destroys it”.

We have pointed out that the proposed referendum, redefining marriage “without distinction as to their sex”, effectively erases the difference between man and woman, a difference which goes to the heart of who we are as human beings. The referendum is therefore based on a deeply flawed understanding of the human person. 

Perhaps most importantly, we have shown that the proposal puts the wishes of some adults above the needs of children generally. Social realities sometimes make it impossible for children to be raised by their own father and mother, but for the first time as a society we will be saying that being raised by one’s own biological parents does not really matter and isn’t even to be preferred. 

Christian point of view

None of the arguments we have made depend on Christian faith and you don’t have to be religious to agree with them. However, there are two important ways in which Christian faith sheds further light on them.

The first is that what we know from the natural law is confirmed in the Bible: the distinction between male and female is at the very heart of  marriage (cf. Gn. 1:27-28; Ephes. 5:21-25).

Both the scriptures and the Church’s constant teaching tell us that  marriage is central to God’s plan for the human family. From a Christian point of view, marriage is the most profound state in which men and women can complement one another. There, they find mutuality and support. Together, they create new life and provide a stable and loving environment in which children can be reared and educated.

Christians believe this to be the true purpose of all marriages, including of civil marriages, and not just of Church or sacramental marriages. This, taken together with our responsibility as Christians to care for the society in which we live, means we have a duty to promote and uphold this understanding of marriage.

God’s plan

The second way in which Christian faith confirms what we know by reason comes from reflecting on what it means to recognise God as Creator and ourselves as creatures.

As Christians, we believe that ultimately everything that matters to us is God’s gift. Beauty, love, friendship, happiness, children: these are all gifts from God. We cannot ‘manufacture’ them as such, or merit them by our own actions or efforts. We are creatures, dependent upon God for what we have and are. Our very nature is itself God’s gift.

From the point of view of Christian faith, the attempt to redefine civil marriage as gender-neutral can be seen as a refusal to accept that we are created as male or female. It can be seen as an attempt to make reality – even biological reality – conform to what we want rather than to God’s plan and purpose.

People recognise fairly readily the damage we do to our environment and to our fragile ecological system when we exploit and manipulate it. Yet there is also a human ecology that needs respect and protection. Pope Benedict XVI urged us to see what he called “the book of nature” as one and indivisible, embracing not only the environment but also human sexuality, marriage, the family and social relations (Caritas in veritate, n. 51).  It makes no sense to seek to protect the natural order in one aspect of nature and not in the other.

The question remains: as Christians should we just mind our own business? Well, all people involved in the debate are bringing the values in which they believe to the table. This in itself justifies Christians expressing their own convictions.

In addition, Christian faith of its nature is not a private matter. As Christians we have always believed that we are “to be to the world what the soul is to the body” (Letter to Diognetus). We have convictions about what serves human dignity and the common good, and, as Pope Francis has said, we have a responsibility to speak of these even if they are unpalatable to public opinion (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 65).

It is important, however, that we speak with humility and respect. What we say needs to take account of the real dilemmas, difficulties and complex situations which face people.

It is also important that at the same time as we are inviting people to build a society that accords with God’s plan as we see it, we are also enabling them to respond to that invitation by our own witness to the unconditional love, mercy and compassion of God.